Posts tagged books
I followed the DAC a bit last year, and have had author friends featured last year and more folks featured this year. I’m excited to participate in this conversation, sharing thoughts about Geekomancy, writing, and whatever else comes up. My presence there is currently slight, since I don’t have a cover or locked-in pubdate for the book. But as that info comes in and I get approval to unleash it on the world, you’ll find it there as well as in all of my other social media presences.
This week, in addition to flailing in excitement over the deal, I’ve been thinking about possibilities for the second book in the Geekomancy series. Adam and I will be talking this coming week, and I’m very excited to chat about future possibilities for the series — I’ve never written a sequel before, so it’s going to be a great challenge to take the same core concept and fun characters which caught so much attention with Geekomancy and take it up to the next level, with new characters, new stories, and new geeky jokes and references.
One of my recent reads was Noise, by Darin Bradley. This book got lots and lots of buzz when it came out (at least online), but it wasn’t until last month I picked it up, as my original response was ‘that sounds like I’d hate it.’
Turns out that response was correct, just not in the way I’d expected.
The book is all filtered through the perspective of one disaffected youth, with his life-long BFF at his side. These guys grew up playing D&D, playing boffer swordfighting, and learning survival skills in scouts. So when the digital changeover leaves a gap of frequencies that pirate broadcasters hijack to share their apocalyptic warnings, the boys listen. They start planning, preparing, assembling their own ‘how to survive the apocalypse’ manual, a manual that assumes violence. Not just violence to survive, but lots of violence, as a primary tool of obtaining what you want.
Noise is a book about the ways that personal mythology can be used to completely transform your thinking, and how cultural narratives and groupthink can be used to justify all sorts of horrible acts.
The book is far easier to understand just by reading it. I found that as much as I deplored what was going on in the book, it was compellingly told, and I could imagine that there would be no small number of people who, in the event of a collapse as described (sketchily, I’ll add — either viewable as a bug in the book or a feature if you think that the main character doesn’t really care about the collapse, just the response), would go off the deep end like that.
It’s not an easy book to read, and it is not a clear condemnation or valorization of geeks, boy scouts, or anarchists. It is, instead, a fascinating character study of how a pair of suburban boys try to transform themselves into the kind of people who can survive and thrive in an apocalypse and post-collapse world.
I think my life has just been changed by a book again. The last book that blew my mind this much was Henry Jenkins‘ Convergence Culture. I’m not counting novels right now, because fiction and non-fiction blow my mind in such different ways. This kind of mind-blowing is the one that is potentially career-changing (I want a career as a writer, but other careers along the way might be useful to pay the bills). More organized thoughts may come later, but right now I want to share my enthusiasm and talk briefly about some exciting things.
The author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World is Jane McGonigal, whom you might know from her TED Talk:
Reality is Broken is a continuation of the thread of logic that McGonigal puts forward in the TED talk and in support of her biggest dream: she wants to see a game designer win the Nobel Prize for Peace by 2032.
The book is a concerted effort to take a reader through many of the corners of game design and to show off each area’s lessons, and presents a paradigm which enables every person on earth to participate in saving the planet and the human race: Games. Gamers, she says, are humanity’s secret weapon in our struggle to survive, thrive, and protect our planet.
Disclaimer: I’m a life-long gamer. Some of my earliest memories are playing computer games on my dad’s lap, as we pushed our Commodore Amiga to its limits with games like Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Land of the Rising Sun, and more. I started playing D&D when I was eight, Magic: the Gathering when I was 11, and so on. I was too young to be a part of the first video-gamer generation, but I am totally a representative of the 2nd-gen gamer. From what I can tell, this book is written in no small part to people like me, lifelong gamers, as an inspiration and challenge to go out in the world and turn our gaming experience to achieve Epic Social Win. And for this gamer, the inspiration has certainly been successful.
It’s actually somewhat difficult for me to talk about this book, for several reasons. For one, it’s got a crapton of material and ideas contained within. McGonigal puts forward fourteen ‘fixes’ for reality based on various ways that gaming is superior to reality in letting us be more optimistic, more connected, more engaged and so on.
Here’s Fix#1, from p.22:
“Fix #1: Unnecessary Obstacles
Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use”
The idea here is that adding an unnecessary obstacle to a chore or job lets you take it from a chore, a burden, and turn it into a game with a challenge. I have dirty dishes, and they should be cleaned. I hate washing dishes, unless I add something to the task. If I challenge myself to do the dishes while dancing to my favorite music, or to do the dishes using the least water possible, filling a bowl and cleaning everything out of that one bowl of soapy water, or something in that mode, I take control of the task again — I’m doing dishes, because they have to be done, but I’m doing more than just the dishes — I’m playing a game and the result of that game is both 1) clean dishes and 2) A happier Mike (having played a game, set myself a voluntary obstacle and met it).
McGonigal talks a lot about positive psychology/happiness psychology, looking at the ways that we think we can achieve happiness vs. the ways that current science thinks we actually achieve happiness. Unsurprisingly (since she mentions it), games, especially social games that involve touch, are great for happiness. I found this section one of the most illuminating, since it covered an area not of my expertise (My formal psychology experience begins and ends with Psych 101, a class on brain chemistry).
As a game designer, McGonigal seems to approach her world in terms of problems, and ways to make games to solve them. When she was recovering from a concussion in 2009 and unsatisfied with her rate of recovery, she designed a game called SuperBetter to help her take control of her own recovery and restore a sense of power. The game asks the recovering person to conceive of themselves as a superhero, their disease or injury as the supervillain, and to recruit allies to round out your team, identify power-ups which can help in recovery (taking a walk, doing things you love that aren’t effected by the injury/disease, etc) and making a superhero to-do list of things that will let you feel good about yourself, set goals to aspire to (gather enough energy to go out and do X).
SuperBetter let her ‘gamify’ the recovery process, taking control and empowering herself by applying an interpretive framework that cast herself as the heroine, possessed of the motive and means to get better.
There are countless games, designed for various objectives, but they teach us many lessons. These lessons, McGonigal argues, equip us to tackle the world’s largest problems — we can take big big issues like peak oil and gamify them, applying a framework that will inspire, challenge, and enable people to be creative, innovative, and collaborate to find solutions together (the peak oil example comes from the game World Without Oil).
Not just any old game will save the world. But everyday games can still do things like let us feel powerful and accomplished. They can give us a way to stay in touch with friends or family, give an icebreaker for meeting new people, and countless other things.
Games, McGonigal argues, are a central facet of humanity, and one of our greatest tools. Now we just need to take all of the time and energy we’ve put into games, evaluate and acknowledge what it’s taught us, and put those skills to use on social issues, political issues, environmental issues, and more.
If this sounds like your bag, read the book, then consider signing up with gameful.org, a social-network/collaboration tool for game designers working to make ‘gameful‘ games.
Look, more arguing about SF television! This time, however, I’m talking about an essay by noted Science Fiction author Charles Stross. I was first exposed to his work through several of the short fiction pieces later collected in the volume Accelerando. Much of Stross’s work emerges deeply from the socio-political context of the setting, with notable worldbuilding put into the setting. I agree with much of what Stross has to say, but my ideas contrast enough to mention.
I’m hoping that you’ve already read the essay before coming back here.
Stross primarily takes objection to the story-making process. For Stross, space operas such as the Star Trek franchise after the original series or Babylon 5 follow this process (paraphrased here through my interpretation):
Start with the interpersonal drama that forms the narrative’s center, then build a world around those characters that fills out the setting and enables the primary conflict.
The process positioned as Stross’s favorite is as such:
“I start by trying to draw a cognitive map of a culture, and then establish a handful of characters who are products of (and producers of) that culture. The culture in question differs from our own: there will be knowledge or techniques or tools that we don’t have, and these have social effects and the social effects have second order effects [...] And then I have to work with characters who arise naturally from this culture and take this stuff for granted, and try and think myself inside their heads. Then I start looking for a source of conflict, and work out what cognitive or technological tools my protagonists will likely turn to to deal with it.”
So here’s the thing — I think both of these processes are valid. One creates a setting designed to highlight the way that cultural/technological difference creates different social systems and different people who then have conflicts that emerge from those social contexts. The other creates stories where technological/social context is designed to support the overall character conflict.
Part of why I’m fine with both of these processes is that it’s hard to say ‘interpersonal conflict isn’t important. All of the worldbuilding ever doesn’t matter if you don’t care about the characters.
Now since I’ve read Stross’ work I know that he’s competent and can follow the process he supports and succeed at telling compelling stories. But I’m also a notable fan of Babylon 5, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Coming back to the point: I agree with Stross that if you tell stories where the setting is interchangeable, the dramatic weight of the story can’t hang on that flimsy interchangeable setting. For me, the important part of Star Wars isn’t lightsabers and death stars, it’s a story about family, temptation, and power. And it’s hard to ignore universal themes.
However, the kind of SF that Stross is talking about as growing out of social situation, the sociological SF, is invaluable in its own right. There are many ways of telling stories — some are formulaic and exist only to support the status quo for all its complexity, mixing in ambition and misogyny, institutionalized racism but also love and family. Others challenge specific aspects of society, or imagine an entirely fabricated society to point out the implications of scientific/social change. I’d rather tell and support stories that encourage social justice and a curiosity about possibility, for sure, but it’s often hard to get those stories supported/published and to find a balance between getting people to listen to your point of view and preaching/provoking/condescending.
I agree with Stross on the generalities of the argument, but take objection to some of his examples. I agree with the the mention that the time-frame of television is so limited as to leave precious little room for world building and still be able to present the dramatic arcs. It’s one of the challenges of the form, but doesn’t discount that medium from being valid for sociological SF.
Now for the details. Let’s start with Battlestar Galactica — much of Battlestar Galactica emerges from its setting, which features a race of sentient beings who can love, hate, show remorse and every other emotion but happen to be synthetically created, grown, and moreover, grown in one of 12/11 models of identical bodies. Battlestar didn’t focus as much on those types of dramatic questions as some might have liked (myself included), didn’t spend all its time talking about Cylon/human relations or the dramatic play that comes from the survivors of an apocalypse shuffled into a couple dozen starships with all traditional kinship ripped to shreds. But those situations were present and did indicate the type of characters who emerged from that setting, and influenced the ways that the interpersonal drama unfolded. It certainly won’t stop me from wanting to do my ‘Anthropologists! In! Space!’ novel which is inspired greatly by BSG but wants to put that sociological focus in the forefront. Things that piss us off or we think are done sloppily/imperfectly can be just as much an inspiration as things done well (often more).
More examples. Babylon 5 is deeply interpersonal, but I disagree that it follows the ‘tech the tech so that the tech over-techs’ solutions that Ron Moore discussed at the NY television festival. For me, the dramatic thrust of Babylon 5 focused on bridging boundaries between cultures with contrasting ideologies, the challenges of being both a member of a species/culture and trying to act as a neutral host enabling diplomacy. I feel like very few of its stories were resolved with handwavium, and even if the interpersonal drama was foregrounded, those characters emerged out of their science fictional worlds — psychics taken away from their families, leaders driven to bend/break the rules of engagement to defend the people under their command (during a war with aliens that started as a result of a cultural misunderstanding), and more.
Star Trek: The Next Generation is certainly guilty of ‘Tech the tech-tech and reverse the other tech,’ as deus ex machina for many conflicts. But it also served as my introduction to sociological sf, cultural relativism, and many of the tropes of science fiction which have kept me a fan of the genre and made me appreciate all that it can do. When the crew crashes up against the Prime Directive, trying to find the balance between spreading their favored paradigm and dictating how other people should live their lives, that for me is part of what makes science fiction worthwhile.
I don’t think all science fiction needs to be intensely sociological. I appreciate my Star Wars and my LOST and the like. I can enjoy those shows and still appreciate The Demolished Man, Parable of the Sower, and other sociological SF stories. Maybe TV isn’t the ideal medium for sociological SF requiring intense worldbuilding, but it may be the medium for introducing people to science fictional elements like multiple dimensions or time travel or genetic modification, which then hopefully prepares viewers/readers for reading the more high-context novels/stories/films/etc.
To come back to agreement, I’m with Stross in noting that SF television has a big challenge in that it has to satisfy the executives who have a final call on whether shows air/continue. I’m not saying that I know more about what makes good tv than any given network executive — I haven’t been a network exec and I’m not likely to ever be one. But I would say this to those executives:
You want to make money — one of the ways you may be able to do that is to find auteurs/production companies who have a great deal of cultural/economic cache, and then let them make the shows that they want to make. Fans are likely to follow them, and the kind of fans that follow those prominent auteurs/teams are evangelical, and will spread their enthusiasm over into other groups. Groundbreaking, provocative television gets a lot of attention. Shows like Mad Men, the Sopranos, and more. Without taking big risks, you cut yourselves off from big rewards.
One of the major problems with the perspective of writers/audiences vs the perspective of executives is that the priorities are completely different. I want to eat, sure, but as a writer, I want the chance to make statements and incite conversations about possibility, society, and individuals. And it may be that the executives of NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC and everyone else just don’t care about changing the world, or changing people’s minds’ (other than changing their mind about which tv show to watch and which products from advertisers to buy). And that’s a systemic problem of the consumer storytelling industry, and deserving of its own blog posts. Lots of them.
Since the book is coming out in about a month (May 26th), I’ll go ahead and post my review, based on an Advance Reader’s Edition.
Liminality, interstitially, hybridity. Whatever you call it, it’s one of China Mieville’s biggest leitmotifs, and in The City and the City, it is that hybridity and liminality which provides the speculative question and driving narrative force of the novel. Beszel and Ul Qoma are doppelganger cities, existing in the same space in vaguely-defined eastern Europe, but they are not one city, but two. Crossing between the crosshatched cities is ontological 1984-style offense called Breach. Beszel keeps to Beszel, Ul Qoma to Ul Qoma. And in rare cases, when people or things cross between the two interlinked cities, Breach occurs, summoning Boogeymen to reinforce the urban apartheid.
Investigator Tyador Borlu of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad finds himself working the murder case of an anonymous woman, a Fulana Detail as they are called in the city of Beszel. As he digs into the case, the details of her life and her death tie Investigator Borlu into the intricate history and politics of the doppelganger cities.
Mieville’s experience as an academic and an economist student of international law come to the forefront in The City and the City, as the book follows Borlu through the world of academia, rendered with the petty politicking, insularity and competition that shows he’s lived it. In addition politics of national identity and an awareness of international economic, cultural, and political maneuvering elevate the novel above the mundanity of Yet Another Homicide Procedural.
Because The City and the City is in fact a crime procedural, drawing just as much on the literary tradition of Raymond Chandler as Phillip K. Dick or George Orwell. The hybridity of the novel extends to the level of genre as well. From a genre standpoint, it combines Urban Fantasy, Dystopian SF, and Noir Crime Procedurals. Just as his Bas-Lag works Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council served as the lightning rod pieces of the New Weird movement, combining Fantasy, Science Fiction, Horror, and Pulp aesthetics, The City and the City freely combines ideas and genre modes to produce its own mélange. It’s clearly a work of speculative fiction, but in a larger genre sense, belonging in the company of noir detectives. It’s a work of urban speculative fiction that has more in common with works like Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files than some of the work of his New Weird contemporaries K.J. Bishop or Jeff VanderMeer.
While Mieville’s work has been sometimes criticized for being unfocused, or overbearing in its use of language, The City and the City shows Mieville pushing himself in craft of language as well as in genre. The work still shows Mieville’s loving attention to culture, to the organic nature of cities and their lives, and world-building in general. However, the fact that Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in our world means that the strangeness exists in contrast to a more familiar baseline. Here, Mieville’s prose is more transparent and accessible, akin to in his YA Un Lun Dun, but clearly adult in its content and execution. The novel is paced more aggressively than many of his works, only occasionally lingering a beat too long on a cultural/historical/economic note before returning to the action.
The interconnected nature of the cities suffuses the entire world of The City and the City, it is stitched into the worldview of the inhabitants of both cities, a double-think that is not recent but the result of many years of history, dating back to centuries before as a result of the Cleavage, an event which either split the cities apart or brought them together, depending on which historian you asked, and if they were being watched at the time.
Since Beszel and Ul Qoma exist in the same space, anyone who lives in either city must learn an intricate process of seeing and unseeing. A person in Beszel must be able to see what goes on in their city, but they must also unsee what happens in Ul Qoma. A driver must unsee the Ul Qoman car coming right at her, but will still swerve to get out of its way. Unseeing is meant to be unconscious, keeping the other city in the peripherary, just aware enough to stay safe, while never fully acknowledging the other city, maintaining the metaphysical distinction between the cities. Children must learn to see and unsee as they grow up, learn to identify and distinguish an Ul Qoman design from a Besz one, unsee certain color shades reserved for one city and not the other, and more. Immigrants and visitors are subject to a several-week acculturation course, wherein the distinctions are ground into their head, and a respect and understanding for Breach instilled in them.
Breach is the big-brother-like mysterious entity/organization which polices the places in the city which are crosshatched, fully extant in both cities, where the boundaries are weaker – a careless person walking down a crosshatched street could walk in from Beszel and walk out Ul Qoma, committing Breach. People in the two cities are always self-editing, self-aware of their own perceptions, asking “Should I be seeing that person, or unseeing them?” The categorical doubt of perception, the internalization of the panopticon of Breach, shows Mieville’s critical theory background making itself known in the work itself, calling upon the dystopian mode of literature.
The City and the City is similar to Mieville’s other works in his inventive and generative combination of genres (the New Weird is alive and well, but always changing, always evolving), but distinct from Mieville’s other works in several other ways, most notable being the lack of a clear socialist bent and a lack of focus on the aesthetic of the grotesque.
The City and the City still manifests aspects of the New Weird, but in a different inflection. The novel is just one of the countless ways to approach and implement the ideas and conventions that have been connected by writers and critics. It crosses over with ideas that Mieville has considered in his shorter works, most notably his novella The Tain and the title story of his short-story collection, Looking for Jake. Familiar, contemporary cities made strange through inexplicable metaphysical change, a sense of searching and longing, the quest for understanding resisted by the city itself.
On the other hand, the book shies away from the explicit arguments for/discussions of socialism which are prevalent in his Bas-Lag works, most notably Iron Council. The protagonists’ critique of the governmental systems of Beszel and Ul Qoma are not on matters of economics, capitalism vs. socialism, but on the ideological insistence on a violently-maintained distinction between the cities, as well as the commonplace distaste for red-tape and bureaucracy (what you’d expect to see in any procedural crime work).
The aesthetic of the grotesque, so present and central in many of his works, another of the signature aspects of Mieville’s style, is mostly absent in The City and the City. There are no Remade, no slake-moths or impossible bodies, no Cacotopic Stains. The city crossover takes some of those ideas at a different angle, but it is never depicted in the loving and disgustingly provocative language that accompanies Mieville’s use of the grotesque.
The City and the City is much more akin to the kinds of speculative fictions that posit one novum, one distinction between the world of the story and our own, then explores the possibilities and results of that change. Rather than a wholly-foreign world like Bas-Lag or the weird Mirror-London of Un Lun Dun, The City and the City takes the Beszel/Ul Qoma duality and runs with it, using Investigator Borlu as its agent to dig into the connections and overlaps between the city as part of his investigation into his Fulana Detail.
Accessible to readers familiar with mystery but not fantasy, or vice a versa, The City and the City is a departure for Mieville, but a welcome one. He carries lessons learned from his earlier works and provides a tightly-paced novel which is easily read as a crime procedural, a work of metaphysical archaeology, political commentary, an urban fantasy, and more. Mieville fans who yearn for his socialist argumentation and inventive use of the aesthetic mode of the abject and the grotesque may not be as pleased, but Mieville’s lush use of language and detailed world-building maintain much of what we have grown to know and expect of Mieville. I hope that he continues his trend of branching out and expanding his range, applying his critical eye and skill to many combinations of genres for many different audiences.
The City and the City by China Mieville will be released on May 26th by Del Rey.
On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)
It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.
It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).
The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.
As Jenkins says,
The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).
In the hands of fans
An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.
The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.
I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.
Benefits of the transmedia approach
Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.
The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.
A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.
Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen was long considered an un-filmable work. It pushed the formal grammar of comics to new levels, and remains among the top superhero deconstruction narratives. This review will fully discuss the comic and film versions without pause for spoilers.
So when I heard that a film version was coming, I was suspicious. The promo shots and trailers and interviews painted a pretty picture, but the big questions remained:
Would Watchmen be able to translate to the film medium and retain its efficacy? Could it do for superhero films what it did for comics, and for the supers genre? What would have to change for it to do so?
The film version of Watchmen opens with the Comedian’s murder juxtaposed with Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable.” The visual style is striking, more polished and shiny than Gibbons’ Watchmen, which was studied and deliberate in its messiness. The use of music throughout grounds the story within its historical context.
One of the most inspired innovations of film version of Watchmen is the opening credits sequence. The film shows several living photographs over the cource of the alternative history. We go from Nite Owl knocking out a crook in front of a theatre (which i09.com pinned as being a Batman easter-egg) to Silhouette kissing a nurse in a re-work of the iconic ‘soldier coming home kissing nurse’ picture:
The film takes cues from Moore and Gibbon’s intensely dense intertextual text with this and other allusions. It shows Sally Jupiter’s retirement party as a re-figuring of the Last Supper:
It also posits the Comedian as one of the gunmen in the Kennedy assassination, and so on. And the thing tying it all together is Dylan’s “The Times Are A-Changin’”. By the end of the sequence, you know what’s different in the world, you know what the stakes are for the film.
For the most part, Zach Synder’s film of Watchmen follows the graphic novel closely. The Black Freighter text-within-a-text is omitted, to be released separately as a DVD. The basic story beats are there, with more of an emphasis put on the energy crisis aspects of the cold war, such that Ozymandias and Dr. Manhatten’s efforts to fight the dwindling Doomsday Clock by creating a revolutionary energy source.
Synder’s Watchmen turns up the graphic detail of violence, drawing attention to the hyper-violence of the genre in addition to the hyper-sexuality of the fetishistic costumes and their role in the sexual lives of the heroes.
The Moore Continuum
In my earlier post about the Moore Continuum, I talked about how Moore’s critique of superheroes established two ultimate fates of the superhero: A superhero ultimately becomes a Fascist or a Psychopath. Dr. Manhatten represents the superhero being used as a totalitarian tool or weapon of mass destruction, ending the Vietnam conflict in a week of action. The Comedian presents the superhero as a sociopathic rapist turned tool of the establishment (as opposed to the outlaw hero.
Superheroes have been more commonly establishment heroes or outlaw heroes depending on the character or the times. Superman is more usually an establishment hero, Batman and Spiderman more frequently an outlaw hero). Within the history of Watchmen, heroes began as outlaws, were accepted and embraced by the establishment for their work in WWII, used by the establishment in Vietnam, then outlawed by the Keene Act.
Among the other notable changes is the fact that the female figures in the film have had their smoking habits removed, despite the chain-smoking of the comic. This while Comedian is still allowed his cigars — this ties into the new default cultural assumption now that associates smoking with moral fault. Comedian is an antagonistic/villanous character, so he gets to smoke. But the Jupiter women are figured as victim and heroine, so they aren’t directly associated with that behavior.
In general, Laurie is allowed to be more heroic and agent than in the comic, participating in most of the current-timeline fight scenes and pulling her own weight alongside Nite Owl II. However, the entire narrative of Watchmen remains a critique of the gross excesses of the figure of the superhero.
Feet of Clay
We’ve examined the ‘villains’ of the piece, but what about our protagonists?
Dan Dreiberg/Nite Owl II — an overweight middle-aged shut-in trust-fund kid who wanted to join in the fun, and is impotent without the fetish of his costume and ther aphrodesiac of crime-fighting. Dan is a self-insert character for any and every superhero fan, any kid who grew up loving superheroes so much that their motives are comprimised — is Dan in it because he wants to do good, of because he wants to matter, to be strong, be powerful, be desirable?
Laurie Jupiter/Silk Spectre II — A woman who is defined entirely by her relationships to other characters. She goes into heroing to follow after her mother, falls in with Dr. Manhatten and becomes his sole link to humanity, then imprints on Dan when Dr. Manhatten slips away from her, re-creating her hero worship while acting as a hero herself because she doesn’t know anything else.
Walter Kovacs/Rorschach — A dangerous sociopath raised in a broken home and consdered worthless growing up, he found refuge in crime-fighting, found a way to channel his rage into righteous fury into (somewhat) socially-acceptable channels. For all that he is a crime fighter, he is also a racist misogynist bigot who mooches off of his fellow heroes and unquestioningly murders criminals. His fetish is the Rorschach mask, which he calls his ‘face’ — Kovacs has abdicated his identity and given himself over to his superhero identity, to escape his painful past.
Our ‘heroes’ are far from the paragons of virtue that characters like Superman or Spiderman are made out to be. Now any given hero has their weaknesses — it makes for more human, compelling figures for a hero to transcend their faults to do the right thing. But the weakness and faults in Watchmen’s heroes run so deep that every step of the way, their actions are suspect, must be judged in context with each character’s less-than-heroic motivations — Dreiburg for virility, Jupiter for validation, Kovacs for control. The film does a fine job of following suit with Moore and Gibbons’ storytelling in this regard, such that by the end of the narrative, the protagonists are less reprehensible than the villains, but are hardly role models.
In the comic version of Watchmen, Ozymandias created an alien invasion scare by teleporting a giant alien corpse into Times Square, creating a rallying point for humanity to unite against an external threat. The alien is seeded throughout the series, gestured at and shown in parts.
In the film, Ozymandias instead uses the energy sources he and Dr. Manhatten had been making, and replicates effects associated with Dr. Manhatten. He plays on established fears of the godlike figure and re-works nuclear apocalyptic anxiety to provide the unifying threat that ends the Cold War.
In both cases, Rorschach’s journal makes its way to the New Frontiersman, which would raise enough questions about Ozymandias’ involvement to bring down the whole house of cards. In the comic, the New Frontiersman is established throughout the series, but in the film, it is included at the very end without introduction. Regardless, the point is that after Dan and Laurie agree to lie to preserve the costly peace, the truth will come out anyways.
I doubt that Watchmen will revolutionize superhero film the way that it changed superhero comics. It presented an impressive visual style, but satisfied itself by re-creating and somewhat re-working the story. The credits sequence alternative history was powerful, but even with the evocative usage of music (even though Battlestar Galactica fans will forever associate “All Along The Watchtower” with Cylons).
The film’s first weekend performance ($55 million) was, when we take the recession in context, is impressive. Depending on second-week dropoff and general reception, will determine how the film will be remembered in terms of the superhero film trend. We may see other film adaptations of famous comics, though for many of the leading franchises, the adaptation process complicates the possibility of direct adaptations. Marvel Studios continue building towards their massive crossover Avengers film, following the unexpected success of Iron Man and their competition’s success with The Dark Knight. Superhero films don’t seem to be going anywhere yet, and the film was not adapted in such as to condemn or indict other superhero films or their franchises.
If you’ve read Watchmen, seeing the film will let you see iconic moments brought to life, though the adaptation is not perfect, and the changes made have provoked negative reactions from fans, but other fans have been satisfied with the adpatation and noted the increased role given to Silk Spectre II. If you haven’t read the comic but are interested in the supers genre, it’s worth a look to see a critique of the genre brought to the big screen. But then go read the comic afterwords.
Coraline is adapted from the Hugo-winning Neil Gaiman novella (illustrated by Dave McKean) and directed by Henry Selick, who directed The Nightmare Before Christmas. It is advertised as the first stop-motion film created for 3-D.
The voice acting is strong, meshing well with the character modeling chosen for the film version. The film makes a few changes from the novella, most notably in adding a companion character for Coraline, Wybie Lovat. Wybie provides some exposition that contextualizes the events at the house, and is part of the film adaptation’s efforts to flesh out the story into a shapen and scope that fits the medium and the time (111 minutes).
If you don’t know the novella, here’s a short synopsis:
Coraline Jones is an inquisitive, curious explorer of a nine year old girl. She and her family have moved into an apartment in an old house in the country, but is ignored by her parents, who are both writers. In the film, her parents are up against a deadline, which accounts for their distaction.
After exploring the house and the environs, she finds, inside the house, a door to nowhere. The door leads to a mirror of her apartment, but with her ‘Other Mother,’ who looks the same except for black buttons as her eyes. As Coraline’s visits to the world of the Other Mother continue, the wonderous turns to the delightfully creepy, as Selick and his team build on Gaiman’s surrealist vision to deliver a story that is tight, symbolicaly rich but never confusing.
To speak more about the voice talent — Dakota Fanning gives the right balance of youth, curiosity and spunk for Coraline, Teri Hatcher plays from distracted to warm to terrifying as the Mother/Other Mother, and John Hodgeman puts in a great supporting performance as the Father/Other Father.
Coraline is one of a sadly few film adaptations of novels/textual works where the adaptation both adds to the original work while doing justice to its source material. Selick’s film Coraline gives a visual/auditory experience which enriches the textual experience of Gaiman (and McKean, if you have the illustrations)’s novella. A viewer can easily appreciate the film version without having read the book, as did my sister.
The film is currently playing in 3-D for a limited time, and I highly recommend that everyone take the chance to see it in 3-D. Unlike “Chuck vs. The Third Dimension,” Coraline makes striking use of the 3-D technology, enhancing critical emotional moments and providing texture for the film. The 3-D provides a depth of field, makes the high-emotion moments ‘pop,’ and creates an overall more visceral experience.
On February 13th, we will be introduced to Joss Whedon’s newest television series, Dollhouse.
I’ll be watching it, for my own interest as a general fan of his work, but also to discover if Whedon is able to get out of his rut. I’ve been a fan since the first season of Buffy, continued on with Angel, and am one of approximately 37 members of the Original Flock (also known as people who watched Firefly on FOX during its original run). The Church of Firefly now sports many thousand devotees, whose rankings might as well be determined by the number of DVD-loaning-genertions one is removed from the original TV run). I’m a Whedon fan through-and-through. But it is a natural part of subcultural fandom to critique that which we love. One could say that Indie Rock fan culture is entirely composed of such critique (or that might just be my intense reading of Questionable Content speaking).
In addition to developing a reputation as one of the poets laurate for Geek Culture, Joss Whedon, writer of witty banter, producer of an ongoing line of bad-ass skinny super-powered adolescents/young adults, has become painfully predictable in his approach to romantic relationships.
Whedon’s ouvre spans over a dozen seasons of television, dozens of issues of comics, several films, and a troublesome through-line.
In Joss Whedon’s universe, happiness in romantic relationships is inevitably followed by catastrophic death/dismemberment/disaster.
Let’s do a quick roll-call of Whedon’s Greatest Relationship Hits — I won’t be pulling any spoiler punches here, so stand ready:
Buffy/Angel — Fated Doomed Lovers. A Slayer and a Vampire, it really is poetic. And ended the first time with Buffy stabbing Angel through the heart and shoving him into a hell dimension just as his soul was restored to him. Ended the second time when Angel moped off to LA to get his own show. Failed to start again when Buffy fell in love with Spike.
Xander/Anya — A strange-but-stable relationship ended by cold feet and then kept from re-uniting by a random death in the Buffy finale because, from a dramatic standpoint, a heroic finale isn’t powerful enough unless someone dies.
Zoe/Wash — Happily married, not without their issues, but those issues proved that you can portray a happy long-term relationship realistically and still have it be interesting. Or it did, until Wash took a Reaver-spear through the middle after having his Big Damn Hero moment.
Colossus/Shadowcat — Pete comes back from the dead and Kitty comes back from being a bartender so they can have a joyous reunion, only so that Kitty can be killed off in the Only-Uncle-Ben-Stays-Dead Marvel universe.
Cordy/Angel — Cordelia Chase, who wins the award for Buffyverse character who has the greatest amount of actual character development (barely beating out Wesley), finally achieves something resembling a happy relationship with Angel before being possessed, killed, returned, then ascending, only to return to bid farewell to Angel.
Fred/Wesley — The sexy and badass nerds of Angel finally get together, only to have Fred hollowed out by a Hell Goddess and used as a vessel. Strangely, the romance continues with Illyria messing with Wesley’s head in ways that alternate between poignant and sadistic.
Dr. Horrible/Penny — Not that it was hard to see this one coming, given the whole Supervillain thing, but Penny’s death serves as a almost self-referential response to criticism of Whedon’s tendencies.
Most if not all of these dramatic twists make sense within the context of their narratives. What is troubling is not that any one of those romances ended in PAINDEATHDRAMA! instead of Happily Ever After, but that Whedon’s ouvre seems to intimate that PAINDEATHDRAMA is the inevitable fate of any and all romances.
Certainly, we have a proponderance of narratives that pat us on the head and say ‘Everything will be alright, you’ll meet the right person and it will be beautiful!’, but appreciating and recommending Whedon’s work is harder to do when you take his Love Interest in Refrigerators approach to writing romance. In discussions of his own work, Whedon is fairly clear that he prefers to show the nuance and darkness in the world, wrapping darkness in a comfy hoodie of whimsy and witty one-liners, but it’s making him into a three-trick pony — and one of those tricks involves the rider getting thrown and stomped to death.
The result of this prediliction is that any savvy viewer/reader would have to approach all of his stories knowing “No matter how much I want these people to get together, if they do, it will probably in one of them getting killed/possessed/turned evil/mauled” — which induces a level of self-aware viewing that can work at counter-purposes with immersing yourself in a show and enjoying it on its own terms.
It’s gotten to the point where the ending of any given romance in a Whedon property seems to have become predictable, which is not something that an artist devoted to developing their art wants to be. Ask M. Night Shyamalan, who has watched his star fade as he delivers “twist” endings one after another.
So I’ll be watching Dollhouse, but I might as well put my money on Dushku and Penikett’s character’s getting together and then something horrible coming along like clockwork to end the relationship and/or Penikett’s character’s life. And any relationships between secondary characters are not only just as likely to end in PAIN, but they’re also fairly likely to end in character death.
I’d love for Whedon to prove me wrong. I’d enjoy his work even more, then, which is saying a lot, because he speaks loud-and-clear to my aesthetic.